Mark Twain in the Holy Land by John Holmes

Mark Twain in the Holy Land 



‘I have seen old Israel’s arid plain.
It’s magnificent — but so’s Maine!’


(New England - Jonathon Richman and the Modern Lovers, 1976)

When I think of Mark Twain (real name Sam Clemens) I think of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and a few famous quotes. But those titles were not his bestselling book in his lifetime. That was The Innocents Abroad, still one of the most commercially successful travel books of all time. This piece is about the background to that work. Subtitled The New Pilgrim’s Progress, it is about a trip Twain made across Europe, ending in the Holy Land, the voyage’s principal destination.                 
                    
The year was 1867. By way of context, this was two years after the end of the American Civil War (1861-65) and the assassination of Lincoln, and nine years before General Custer’s Seventh Cavalry were routed at the Battle of Little Bighorn. In England it was almost halfway through Queen Victoria’s 63 year reign. 

Twain was a brash 31 year old reporter when he persuaded the Daily Alta in San Francisco to send him on the first ever cruise aboard the Quaker City, a retired Civil War gunboat, on a five month trip to Europe and on to Palestine. It was agreed that for $1200 he would write fifty articles for the paper. He was also to send despatches to a couple of East Coast publications. He had grown up in the Calvinist tradition with a love of Bible stories and a desire to believe in the New Testament message, despite feeling unable to do so. He was counterculture, endlessly curious, energetic and humorous. The other 64 passengers were mainly small-town businessmen and professionals - little travelled but mostly well up on the Bible and religious. 

Twain soon found the self-righteousness of the pious folk distasteful with their nightly prayer meetings led by the humourless Colonel Denny. He organised his own group: the Nighthawks (later Sinners) who drank, smoked and played cards. When they went to the Old World - Spain Italy and France - he soon tired of the docile reverence expected of the travellers, feeling tour guides were manipulating them. In Italy he was outraged at the sight of the well-fed priests compared to the starving lay population around them. He was constantly annoyed by all the hyperbole and adulation for things merely because they happened to be old. Europe’s traditions were suffocating it to death. After stops in Greece, Russia and Turkey, they arrived at Beirut where the passengers divided into groups. Twain chose a challenging three week trek on horseback, paying English-speaking dragomen $5 a day to guide and protect the eight Americans, although not from the conditions - hot, dusty desert. Water was scarce because Islamic villages refused to allow their wells to be profaned by Christians. Tents, however, were luxurious with ample food and drink. In that respect at least, the travel books had been proved correct.

                    

When a three day trip in the Bekaa valley was crammed into two so the pious could avoid travelling on the Sabbath, Twain objected but without success; fearing for the horses, he believed their mistreatment sinful. On reaching Banias, their first stop in the Holy Land, Twain’s sense of wonder revived - to be walking where Jesus once trod! But the feeling soon passed, irritated by the pious weeping over relics and chipping off fragments of the temple to take with them. He branded them ‘American Vandals’. Approaching the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus performed healing miracles and walked on water, the pious were full of excitement, seeing their lifelong dream of sailing over it within grasp. No price could be too high for such an experience. But when the boatman quoted them the equivalent of $8 (a dollar each) they tried to persuade him to accept $1. So disgusted was he that he departed without them, causing a squabble amongst the pilgrims as to whose fault it was, and leading one wag to ask, ‘Colonel Denny, could this be the reason Jesus walked?’ For Twain, having earlier dismissed Lake Como as inferior to Tahoe, Galilee was similarly unimpressive. The relative smallness of everything, compared to its depiction in the Bible and at Sunday school, was central to his disappointment with the Holy Land. He discovered that the kings of mighty nations he’d thrilled in reading about as a boy, had no more to their domains than the average American small-town mayor. He also felt travellers were betrayed by earlier writers, in particular William Prime with his overly sentimental prose and frightening tales of his heroics fighting bloodthirsty heathens.

The journey on to Jerusalem was rocky and desolate, and pious and sinner alike rejoiced on seeing the Holy City before them. They stayed in the Mediterranean Hotel in relative comfort, so much so that Twain spent the entire first day enjoying its luxury. Jerusalem, however, proved another letdown. Once again, he simply could not reconcile the city in the Bible with it in real life ( saying a fast walker could circumnavigate it in an hour). He found it dirty, crowded, noisy and smelly, people in squalor unimaginable to the average American, everyone yelling ’baksheesh’ and pestering him to do deals on things he didn’t want. Even the pious seemed disillusioned with the city. 

At the Muslim Dome of the Rock situated on the ruins of King Solomon’s temple, Twain was disgusted by Colonel Denny’s refusal to remove his shoes as was the required custom, simply because it was not his religion. At the Tomb of Jesus his Protestant sensibility gagged at all the ‘gewgaws and tawdry ornamentation’. He was bemused by the Tomb of Adam, suspecting it was, like much he’d seen, fraudulent. But then he thought that if genuine, it was, after all, a blood relative buried there, ‘True, a distant one, but still a relative’, and he wept at the fact of never having known his ancestor. A decade later, the tomb had became a tourist stop as the place where Mark Twain wept. He softened at the site of the Crucifixion, however, prepared to accept that, given its significance, it must have happened there or close by, and gained from it an appreciation of the power of religion. It was after this he ordered a special Bible with cover made from three different woods to take back to his mother. He was respectful of her faith and that of anyone else when it was genuine. 

Away from Jerusalem the party swam in the Dead Sea and the River Jordan. From his Bible readings he had anticipated the latter to be miles across but found it no wider than Broadway in New York. In Bethlehem with its beggars and relic-peddlars, he was able to touch the spot where the infant Jesus had once lain — and he experienced nothing whatever. Two days later, the party, by now keen to return home, travelled, despite it being the Sabbath, to Jaffa where they boarded ship. Even the pious were relieved to be free of the desert, and, as Twain observed, ‘They wept not over Jerusalem.’ 

The Quaker City arrived back in New York in November 1867. A publisher approached Twain about a version of the articles for a book. He worked on them, refining the prose, and the book was published in 1869. He dedicated it to his mother. It was a great success with critics and public alike. There was a laugh on every page and after the ravages of the Civil War the nation was in need of it. The book transformed his life. He could now turn his full attention to writing books. He travelled extensively, but never again to Palestine. He mellowed over time, however, saying that looking back one doesn’t recall the heat, thirst, squalor and so on, only the pleasant memories of Jerusalem.

                     

His book is still read today, or at least quoted from. In 2009 Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, gave President Obama a first edition. Twain has sometimes been criticised for depicting Ottoman-ruled Palestine as such a desolate place — it has been used in arguments over the state of the country before Zionism - and also criticised for his flippancy. But Twain was young and relatively unknown. He was writing his impressions, originally as articles, not an academic text book or political treatise. Moreover, as indicated by the title, he was as interested in his fellow travellers as the countries they visited; it was in his nature to mock almost everything and everyone, including himself. In The Innocents Abroad he sought to convey what contemporary American eyes saw, rather than what others might want those eyes to see. Americans felt inferior to the Old World, which the Old World encouraged, and he wanted to show them they had no reason to feel so. Their New World offered much more. 

Finally, there was an interesting postscript to his love affair with Lake Tahoe. In a scenario that would no doubt have amused him, it was formally proposed that one of its coves be renamed after him. However, the local Washoe tribe protested against this. For all his progressive views on issues such as slavery, his public openness to other faiths and races did not extend to the American Indian, and the Washoes’ complaint went beyond his disparagement of them as a ‘digger tribe’. After reflecting on it, even the man who’d suggested the change declined to support it, and in 2014 the idea was dropped. It is unlikely to be revived.

Picture Credits - on line, copyright unclear. Will remove if offending.

THE SINGER by Barrie Purnell

THE SINGER

She sang her songs, she made her mark
But lived her life inside the dark,
No moon to shed its silvery light
To help her through the black and lonely night.
She was going down, was in freefall
To a river of treasons beyond recall,
Wanted to be who she was before,
A guilt free, visionary troubadour. 

Then Vodka’s voice whispered in her ear,  
‘You know that I can kill your fear,
Without the comfort that I bring
Could you ever write, would you ever sing?’
She knew well that voice’s liquid charms
Surrendering into its arms,
It held her heart, she could write again,
A half way happy, with an edge of pain.

She wrote to lose herself in rhyme
There was a scar in every line,
Writing of love she’d never see
Dreaming of the girl she used to be.
Escaping from the depths of her regret
The words she wrote were darker yet.
The hurt was all that she could sing,
Her reality was an ugly thing.

She tried to escape the misery,
Taking back what she’d given free.
Skeletons of lovers killed by her art
Hung from the gallows of her heart.
Her life ran too close to the fire
Over broken glass and razor wire.
She sank to an ultimate defeat,
Back to Black on infinite repeat.


[Back to Black by Amy Winehouse video - click.]

AN OCTOGENARIAN’S PANDEMIC by Barrie Purnell

AN OCTOGENARIAN’S PANDEMIC

There’s been some sort of epidemic
So say all-knowing academics,	
A kind of dread Chinese infection
Designed to avoid early detection,
Resulting in oxygen deprivation
For which there was no known protection.
The government and the NHS
Said, what to do we can only guess
But until we can make up our minds
You must avoid contact of any kind,
Wash your hands 10 times a day
Put your going out clothes away,
And for restrictions we’ll atone 
By paying you to stay at home.
Said if lockdown we don’t apply
Half a million would surely die,
But something they didn’t say
Was all of us would have to pay,
All the costs of shutting down
To the tune of 300 billion pound.
I have to think they’ve lost their mind
Paying ½ billion to save a life like mine.

On the news the professor reported
We’d all go mad before it was sorted,
But when I had the time to reflect
Saw on me it would have little effect.
I was allowed to form a bubble
With neighbour who said, it was no trouble
To do a supermarket shop for me
Of fresh food, bread, milk and tea,
And I booked an on-line delivery
Which hitherto had been a mystery.
My hour long visits to numerous clinics
Were now phone calls over in minutes,
And no waiting in a doctors surgery
With ill people sitting next to me,
Covering me in their coughs and sneezes
Spreading their as yet unknown diseases,
And oh what joy when they disclosed
All the dentists would be closed.
No visits from that demanding relation
Requiring clean sheets on each occasion.
My expenditure had been decreased,
From hugging I had been released,
No longer was I considered rude
When I indulged my love of solitude.
I don’t spend weekends in hotels
Or holiday in the Seychelles,
I have nobody to look after
I have no fear of the hereafter.
I thought now I will have the time
To watch programmes on Amazon Prime,
Then there was Netflix and Catch-Up TV
Opportunities spread out endlessly.
The prospect of gardening reared its head
Or I could do DIY instead.
Then there were all those books to read
Which would increase my reading speed,
And when these became less exciting
I could always try to do some writing.

But as months ran into longer time
I missed the freedom once was mine,
I missed the human interaction
Leading to increasing dissatisfaction.
I wondered if this imposed ban
Affected this old solitary man,
Someone long past his prime
Already living on borrowed time,
How much harder would it have been
If I had been just seventeen?
And here I had to face the truth,
We chose to sacrifice our youth,
They lost out on jobs and education,
On teenage fun and socialization.
My few remaining years protected
By youth, who even if they were infected,
Would avoid serious complication
And wouldn’t require hospitalisation,
But who’d be paying back for many years
The billions spent to keep our conscience clear.
So we mortgaged millions of young lives
To try and help the old survive.
Was this right, we don’t know yet
Or something the country will regret?
Maybe result would have been the same
If they’d just locked up the old and lame,
And supplied any help they needed
Until search for vaccine had succeeded.
Having lived through rationing and the blitz.
The old could surely have survived this?

Each year 600000 deaths are seen
From causes other than COVID 19,
For every 1 that from COVID died
Cancer and heart disease killed 5.
Now on the news a man of 99
Is said to have died before his time!!
What’s new is that now each day, 
Presented in graphical display,
Death is there for all of us to see
We’re confronted by our own mortality.
Everyday more of the same
Until we look for someone to blame
For the extra deaths of an aged few,
As if death was something new,
When we have been able to ignore
The millions who have died before.
Only when that eulogy is read
Over the special one we’ve loved who’s dead,
Do we realise death is always with us
Even if it’s something we don’t discuss.
As mortals why do we believe
From death we alone could be reprieved?
Heart attack, cancer or suicide, 
Broken heart or homicide,
Immortality is our minds biggest lie
COVID ………just another way to die. 

Released by Andrew Bell

Released

Sitting in the study, I'm watching 
the early morning mist give way 
to the rising sun, 
waiting for your call, 
waiting for the clock 
to announce another day 
captured by the call to work;

when I noticed a single stem of freesia 
in a display you'd carefully arranged, 
had split.

As I reached for the stem, 
the delicate blend of purple and white 
and the subtle fruity sweetness 
took hold.

Time passed away, as the day ahead 
took flight,
unlocking a few precious moments, 
here now ablaze in my hand,

opening up an inner landscape 
where nothing is hidden 
or set by the clock, where everything is given…

Was this your call from beyond?

where the love you have shown me, 
has shown me how to love,

how that love may forever flow,
how it all made me think and take stock.

Winter Is Coming by Limi Jones

A sonnet.
Using Shakespearean Limi Jones has attempted the abab, cdcd, efef, gg rhyming and 10 syllables per line scheme.

Winter is coming

Autumn colours gone for the trees are bare
And the land is cold where nothing will grow.
There’s nowhere to hide for the mad march hare
As rain turns to sleet and the sleet turns to snow.

Up in the heavens and clear crystal skies
Dark ravens land on a frost fingered tree.
Forlorn echoes of their fae shrouded cries.
Ink blots once more as the glide away free

Thick snow covers land like frosting on cake
Sprinkled with gemstones which glimmer and shine,
moonstone hard water on a cold still lake
Where the sun can’t enter their dark shoreline.

The old winters Gods have come for their keep
Embracing the land enchanted in sleep.

JUST ANOTHER POEM by Barrie Purnell

JUST ANOTHER POEM


I am a walking, talking portrait of my past
With each line I write I send myself a message,
I am known only for the coherence of my failures,
Each completed work, for me a rite of passage.

Living alone in the emptiness of no man’s land
I’ve been masquerading as someone who cares,
Wearing a poet’s disguise and Trojan horse smile,
Clothes woven from lies and unanswered prayers.

A prism of pragmatism in a trial and error world,
Hiding here in the deep shadow of all my mistakes,
With secrets I’m not prepared to either share or keep
Held tight in the arms of eccentricity’s embrace.

An outsider wanting to be back on the inside,
On the other side of love wearing tomorrow’s smile,
I am playing my part so well that no one can tell,
Too late for me to change and too old to stand trial.

I travel with a suitcase full of empty dreams
With my memories all being eaten up by rust,
I lent on their promises but dreams came undone,
This world is full of such examples of broken trust.

I’m waiting for an apology from the dream dealers
Who promised to build me an endless paradise,
But confession never comes easily to guilty men,
We only find the truth when it’s too late to be wise.

I look into the mirror it’s not telling me any lies,
I see the reflection of a man I should have known,
I’m looking at the ghost of the man I used to be
Holding a medal you gave me for the courage I’ve shown.

Just another poem that no one but you will ever hear
From a tired pen that’s forgotten how it all began,
Shining a fading light into unowned, unknown spaces,
Illuminating only the quiet workings of a broken man.

MOVING BOXES, by Angela O’Connor

MOVING BOXES

Still they sit in the shed. Empty. Cold. Lifeless
Never looked at, she wonders why she keeps them.
Just hang onto them.
They may be of use. Or do they represent something else?

Her. Love for her. Annoyance of her. They are from her address.
Stickers of a home no longer visited.
They must not be tossed out. Spiders can weave their fine homes.
But never thrown. Never thrown. Always at my home.

Roger Butler

Pilgrims of the Sky by Limi Jones

Pilgrims of the sky
The swallows swoop and sweep across the sky
Acrobatics ready for their long-haul flight.
Back to the land where the spice trail starts.
The smell of sweet, syrupy, sticky treats
Where vendors peddle their exotic goods
To dark skinned women, with laughter eyes and warm smiles.
Cotton clothes that are caressed by the blistering desert breeze
Move in, rebellious, riots of rich shades.

Laughter, call of sellers, squeals of children at play
Ceaseless, chatters, conversations echo through the ancient streets.
Voiceless whispers of stories, imprinted like ghosts
On once grand, now crumbling fortress walls.
Calling their feathered companions their yearly guests
The flying devotees, pilgrims of the heavens and skies.
The dessert sands once again raise their arms to embrace
The swallows to their native homelands.

Mr Verity by Andrew Bell

Mr Verity

A friendly stranger has taken over
the top floor in my head.

A man of culture and refinement,
he wears smart shoes,
with polish well rubbed in;
keeps his best thoughts
in his wardrobe on the shelf
above his suits and ties
and his aspirations,
in other fine pieces,
some suitably distressed.

You will never hear him grumble
about errant thoughts leaking
through distressed tap washers,
embarrassing moments, or missed opportunities.
But, I suspect he has come to teach me,
hold a mirror to my foibles
or, because he never seems to rest,
reset my synapses as I sleep.

More often though, I will find him
playfully disrupting my self-absorption,
like when he sings melodious refrains
through the floorboards above my bed.

At weekends, I may accompany him
in duets,
and sometimes, when I miss a beat,
I can see by his look,
that I’m somewhere else,
reliving those Sunday afternoons,
with the lady I met in the flat below,
the one who keeps my dreams
with her rings in a box.

And when the world is having fits
about this or that,
or when I get caught up
with the problems of mortality
or the properties of dark matter, or eternity,
or I’m wondering whether writing a poem
is a symptom of insecurity,
he answers my questions
with thoughtfulness and grace.

Then my attic voice
begins to change its tone.
I’ll feed on benign spaces
between the words,
put the issues back in their chest,
slip quietly into those silent attic spaces,
and make a cup of tea.

 

‘Locks’ by Kevin Murphy

Thanks to Kevin for his response to our trigger ’lock’. Kevin writes:
‘Here is a short extract from my current work in progress, and autobiographical novel based on my experiences looking for love after leaving a Monastery.

Every other weekend, now without fail, and with Alan’s help, I went back home. The adults of the Youth Centre Management Committee showed that great lesson I learnt at Greyfriars: their trust that young people could be responsible. They took some persuading, but I had to fight to save my lost love.

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